In praise of the 'economically illiterate' academic

University staff are now being drilled to see their work as part of a great financial machine to generate revenue, much of which is then absorbed in astronomical salaries for senior staff. Is this really what we want for our universities?

Ansgar Allen
4 April 2014

Like every ‘public’ institution the university is suffering the effects of an economic gaze that looks fixedly and asks: ‘What is the point of you?’ 

According to David Willetts there is only one response. The point of the university is to ‘grow’. Willetts has only one type of university in view, this being a university of the entrepreneurial kind.

We might complain that the economic benefits of such universities are only ever vaguely gestured at, but this would miss the point. Indeed, we should probably not expect the pursuit of growth to make any kind of sense, financial or otherwise.  We should not even be scandalised if, as with student fees, huge inefficiencies and operational stupidities are discovered. Today, growth is championed for no particular reason.  The objective, quite simply, is to engage in the pursuit of it.

Growth is an unpleasant experience; as to grow one must first outgrow one’s former self.  This is why, paradoxically, growth is experienced as a kind of constriction. Those experiencing the effects of this economic demand speak of enforced belt-tightening, of a big squeeze, of an all-embracing grip that comes dangerously close to asphyxiation. 

The last surviving defenders of what is now a largely defunct educational project do, indeed, go a little red as if constricted by the very thought of its reduction to economic imperatives. They strongly believe that in its institutional and ‘public’ form, the educational good for which they fight is being squeezed out of existence.  But they focus their ire on the symptom, which is constriction, rather than the cause, which is growth.

If parts of the university are coming to resemble a husk, this is not because the four horses of audit, accountability, managerialism and performativity have crushed it.  Rather, parts of today’s university are husk-like because the rest of the university has exploded from its former confines, shedding its former shell, as it balloons outward in ever more chaotic forms. 

Under the economic yoke of advanced liberalism, today’s university is distinguished not by its greyness and economic subjugation, but by a gaudy proliferation of colour.  It has become the rampant breeding ground of jobbing academics in search of the next ‘big’ idea.  Despite the ‘bottom line’ mentality that besets it – where institutional coffers must be serviced before all else – economic restrictions are swiftly transformed into entrepreneurial opportunities, available only to those bold enough to reach out and grasp them.  The perverse greed of this grasping hand (which, in many cases, is already in receipt of significant funds) is rarely remarked. 

The hand that grasps is, of course, an educated hand.  In a recent meeting, my grasping hand, and the grasping hands of my colleagues, were told that they had to become ‘economically literate’.  We were being encouraged, in other words, to better understand the financial landscape in which we operate.  The hand must understand just how much it costs to run, for we must at the very least cover the costs we incur. 

Here is the connection between the eye-watering pay rises enjoyed by vice-chancellors, and the recent installation of new printers in my department, that display in pounds and pence the ‘expenses’ employees incur as they go about their business.  Greed must be accompanied by prudence.

In effect, academics must learn to feel personally responsible for the economic future of the institution that employs them.  This would be slightly less barbaric, to my mind, if universities were something akin to mutual societies, sharing the economic benefits of expansion equitably amongst their membership.  But universities are deeply hierarchical organizations entailing huge differentials in pay and working conditions.  These organisations are moreover, comfortable to exploit the goodwill and ambition of an increasing number of poorly paid, poorly supported casual workers that can be hired and fired at will. 

It is regrettable, that our more established academics all-too-willingly embrace their new financial responsibilities.  Relatively few among them limp about these exploded spaces dolefully holding on to the tatters of defunct educational ideals, choking on the very idea of ‘growth’.  Far too many academics rush forth without questioning the destination.  In this context, perhaps the greatest danger we face is not the oft-feared implosion of higher education, but its uncontrolled, opportunistic expansion.   


Ansgar Allen is a Lecturer in Education at the University of Sheffield.  He is the author of Benign Violence: Education in and beyond the Age of Reason published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.

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